Senator Drilon’s comments on the President’s report on COVID-19 to Congress

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Drilon

Senator Franklin Drilon has issued some comments on President Rodrigo Duterte’s first report a week after the chief executive was granted emergency powers by Congress to address the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

Below is the senator’s statement in his assessment of Duterte’s first report to Congress:

With the enactment of Republic Act 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal As One Act, the government, in the words of Executive Secretary Medialdea, “now has greater means to supplement and intensify COVID-19 responses to further mitigate its impact on all Filipinos.”

Pursuant to Sec. 5 of R.A. 11469, which requires the President to submit a weekly report to Congress including the amount and corresponding utilization of the funds used, augmented, reprogrammed, reallocated and realigned, the President transmitted his Report to Congress on March 30, 2020.

The lack of sufficient funds will undermine government interventions to fight COVID-19. With the passage of R.A. 11469, Congress has removed all impediments to the President’s ability to access and realign available funds within the Executive department by allowing him to cancel existing projects to create savings.

The President’s first report however states that as of March 27, 2020, no special purpose funds (SPFs) have been utilized for COVID-19 measures except for the P500 million replenishment of the DOH’s Quick Response Fund.

We urge the Executive to come up with a comprehensive COVID financial package that will cover both the health and economic aspects. This is lacking in the report. We regret that the government has not crafted any new interventions or programs that could help the poor and keep the economy afloat while we are on lockdown.

 

FUNDING

The President’s report contained neither assurance that the DOH has enough existing funds to address the crisis nor a statement on how much funds will be realigned to augment the DOH budget, save for the P500 Million replenishment of its Quick Response Fund.

As of 4 March 2020, the DBM Secretary has told the DOH that it only had close to P530 Million available budget for utilization, out of its total budget of P101.2B.

During the hearing on the supplemental budget to address COVID-19, the Bureau of Treasury admitted that it did not have P2.4B excess income available – the amount initially requested by DOH to be used primarily to procure personnel protective equipment for health workers. The Bureau of Treasury revealed that it only had P1.65 billion in excess funds available for realignment to the DOH.

For 2019, the Bureau of Internal Revenue has collected 2.176 trillion, which is lower than the agency’s revenue target of P2.271 trillion. Similarly, the Bureau of Customs also fell short by 30.7B of the 661B target for the year.

With the pandemic and the lockdown, revenue collections are greatly affected and government disbursements, which account for roughly 20 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, are expected to slow down.

Our tight fiscal space seriously affects the government’s capability to address COVID-19. This would make the government dependent on loan and aid to address the pandemic, which would lead to slow responses.

The Department of Finance has appealed to taxpayers to pay their taxes early despite the one-month extension, to fund programs with the least amount of borrowing. This, despite the fact that businesses are at a standstill and are expected to incur vast losses due to the Luzon-wide Enhanced Community Quarantine.

 

SOCIAL PROTECTION

Sec. 4(cc) of the law authorizes the President to introduce an Expanded and Enhanced Pantawid Pamilya Program to be implemented for two months. It also authorizes the DSWD or the DOLE to transfer cash, cash vouchers or goods to LGUs or directly to households including those working in the informal economy and are not currently recipients of the current Pantawid Pamilya Pilipino Program in an amount adequate to restore capacity to purchase food and other essential items during quarantine.

We urge the DSWD to act with more dispatch in distributing the assistance to the affected families. The entire Luzon was placed on Enhanced Community Quarantine or an effective lockdown on 16 March 2020 and fifteen days later, majority of the population has not yet received the help needed. Without any income or assistance, poor families cannot meet the basic food needs to satisfy the nutritional requirements set by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI). In NCR, the food threshold per family per month, based on 2018 figures of the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) is pegged at P8,345; in Regions 1 to Region IV it is at P7,200 to P7,900; in MIMAROPA it is at P6,713.

According to the Report, however, DSWD has so far distributed food and non-food items to only 4,753 clients from March 13 to 29 amounting to P22Million, and has procured 69,200 family food packs to benefit 69,200 families or 346,00 individuals for two to three days. According to the PSA, 81.1% of all workers in the Philippines are employed in the informal sector. In Metro Manila alone, there are 12.8 Million people living in poverty. In the entire Luzon, 47.52 Million live in poverty. The DSWD must urgently accelerate its efforts to ensure that these 47.52 Million people are reached in order for them to survive on zero income.

The DOLE has paid P5,000 to 8,461 beneficiaries of financial assistance under the CAMP or the Covid-19 Adjustment Measures Program and has engaged 51,293 as part of the TUPAD or the Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers Program.

While the quick action by DOLE in implementing the CAMP even prior to the enactment of the law should be recognized, we again urge them to act quickly to ensure that the assistance is able to reach a bigger part of the population at the soonest possible time. We note that as of 27 March 2020, the DOLE-NCR alone has received 46,213 CAMP applications.

 

RESOURCES FOR THE HEALTH SECTOR

PPEs

Seventeen out of the total COVID fatalities are doctors. We are sending our physicians to war without the proper battle gear. The DOH must act with haste in delivering the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to the various hospitals in all parts of the country, to ensure that the healthcare workers are adequately protected.

As early as 4 February 2020, during the hearing conducted by the Committee on Health, Secretary Duque has already identified the need to procure PPEs for at least 5,000 healthcare workers, the total of which would amount to P2 Billion. However, the acquisition by the DOH of P1.8 Billion worth of PPEs was only made recently and the Department is said to be awaiting the delivery of around 1 million PPE sets. We reiterate the urgency of the need to distribute these PPEs to the healthcare workers all over the country.

 

Increasing Capacity and Resources

Sec. 4(a) provides the President the power to adopt and implement measures to suppress further transmission of the virus, following World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines and best practices. The President is also empowered to expedite and streamline the accreditation of testing kits and facilitate prompt testing by both public and designated private institutions of PUIs and PUMs.

Dr. Bruce Aylward of the World Health Organization, has said in an interview that “if you simply rely on big shut down measures without finding every case, then every time you take the brakes off, it could come back in waves.” Dr. Aylward has said that we have bought some time by putting in place these shut downs but that time should be used well to “get the testing in place, to get the systems in place, so that you can actually manage the individual level cases that are going to be fundamental to stopping this.”

We call for the immediate release of funds for programs identified in the law, including the hiring of doctors, nurses, and other health workers; purchase of beds, medical supplies and equipment like testing kids, PPEs, mechanical ventilators; and establishment of isolation units and quarantine facilities; increasing the operational budget of the Philippine General Hospital and other DOH hospitals; among others.

According to the WHO, “the availability of timely and accurate results can be threatened when testing demands outstrip capacity, such as when “there is a backlog for testing and it is no longer possible to turn around results within 24 to 48 hours, or when the laboratory staff are exhausted, or when critical staff become infected or are placed in quarantine”.

While the DOH has identified more government hospitals accredited for testing in the country, the efforts of LGUs and private hospitals to develop their own testing centers should also be encouraged. The DOH must hasten its accreditation of LGU facilities and private hospitals as testing centers. Our bureaucracy has the mindset of a regulator instead of an emergency and crisis manager.

Some private hospitals have disclosed that they have had the platform for testing but are unable to use it because of the initial insistence to centralize the testing at the RITM. It was only when the quarantine was already in place that the DOH has agreed to assess private hospitals as testing centers. Some hospitals have even been prevented from getting their testing kits from the Bureau of Customs.

Had the private hospitals been allowed to do conduct tests earlier, more people could have been tested with faster turnaround times. The DOH must do the accreditation with extreme urgency. This way, the resources and personnel of the government will not be overburdened and the private hospitals can attend to more patients, casting a wider net on the population that can be tested and isolated.

The DOH must also look at innovative ways to reduce contact between healthcare worker and patient during testing and look to other countries for best practices that can be applied in the local setting.

Aside from funds that may be sourced from realignments and augmentations in the budget, we note the existence of the following items in the Budget of the DOH: – Epidemiology and surveillance P115,501,000 – Purchase of government health care facilities P8, 350,610,000 – Operation of DOH Hospitals in Manila: P10,320,094,000 (P10B) – Operation of DOH Regional Hospitals and Other Health Facilities P29,583,796,000 – Prevention and Control of Other Infectious Diseases P2,021,089,000

 

LGUs

The national government should enhance its collaboration with the local government units. This is the best time to harness the local governments as partners of the national government.

LGUs are at the forefront of service delivery and social protection efforts in this pandemic. The national government through the DILG and other agencies should capacitate the LGUs and enable them to respond to the needs of their constituents. The Report shows very limited assistance to LGUs.

The Report states that LGUs have been authorized to utilize more than 5% of their calamity fund subject to additional support from the National Government. It further cites JMC No. 1 which contains guidelines on the utilization of the Internal Revenue allotment for development projects.

Among the powers of the President under Section 4(g) of the law is to ensure that all Local Government Units (LGUs) are acting within the letter and spirit of all the rules, regulations and directives issued by the National Government pursuant to the Bayanihan Lawm while allowing LGUs to continue exercising their autonomy in matters undefined by the National Government.

This Section of the law must be viewed in light of Article X of the Constitution which provides for the autonomy of territorial and political subdivisions. Section 4 Article X of the Constitution provides that the President shall exercise general supervision over local governments, although jurisprudence clarifies that supervision should not amount to control.

Innovative practices should be encouraged. The government must take the perspective of crisis managers, who employ innovation and quick action rather than extreme regulation.

 

RED TAPE

Section 4(ee) of the law authorizes the President to undertake measures reasonable and necessary to carry out the policy under the law.

The Report states that ARTA has issued an advisory to government agencies to fast track and simplify procedures in government agencies. We have yet to see this bearing fruit. In one city, the Mayor has lamented having to evacuate the PUMs and PUIs from the public school which they are occupying and transferring them to a private school because the Deped and the DILG are requiring a MOA with the City Government to use the school.

While some measures have been cited in the Report which are adopted by the Bureau of Customs and other agencies, we emphasize the need to further streamline these measures.

Red tape should be removed and abhorred, if we are to address the crisis effectively. The punitive and regulatory tendencies of the bureaucracy should be avoided. Innovation in place of extreme regulation can help save lives.

We cannot overemphasize the urgency of the situation. In the coming weeks, we expect more details on actions taken by the various departments that go beyond the issuance of guidelines or the conduct of studies. We are dealing with an emergency and our actions and mindset should be shifted accordingly./Stacy Ang

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